The Evolution of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies

By Robert A. Denemark, Founding Editor

In about 2004 a member of the International Studies Association (ISA) approached the executive director and suggested that the Association sponsor a large-scale literature review project. This was very much in line with suggestions being made by our then-journals publisher, Blackwell, as to how we might expand our offerings to the membership. In this short essay I consider the logic of such a project, as well as some of its administrative history.

My friend and colleague Naeem Inayatullah commented during the process of creating this project that these sorts of endeavors emerge from some set of social, economic, and political underpinnings. He was uncertain as to where this one might have come from and challenged me to give serious thought to why we were embarking on such a venture. I took Naeem quite seriously and came up with six possible responses. I realized that understanding these underpinnings would be important in driving a focused project and avoiding a variety of potentially serious pitfalls. Several suggestions as to what was inspiring such a project were also made during debate in the ISA Governing Council meetings of 2005 and 2006. Not all of them were very pretty. If we were to create a project of any real value, there were serious problems to avoid and a fair amount of self-reflection would be necessary.

I sensed that Naeem believed that any attempt to classify all of international studies, and therefore codify the field, was a huge error. Victorian England had gone through a similar phase with regard to geography and biology. Perhaps this project’s genesis was a function of the misplaced belief that one could understand (and therefore control) everything. The work would be a reflection of fully mature (and soon-to-be-declining) hegemonic power. Any attempt to solidify global processes is likely a folly, and this was especially so on the eve of major structural changes. Were we falling prey to little more than a hegemonic conceit?

A second concern had to do with the commercial aspect of the project. My very insightful colleague Ronnie Lipschutz complained that this was little more than an attempt to corral the commons. We were going to take the free-range literature and convert it into a series of copyrighted essays (and perhaps interpretations). Put differently, and in a medium that Lipschutz did not use, this entire project may have been little more than our being compliant in the further commercialization of knowledge. As “intellectual property” became all the rage in legal and corporate circles, this effort might be little more than an attempt to mop up all the separate threads of the literature in international studies and package (or repackage) them in an effort to wring profits from material that had yet to be commodified. This might be no more than a typical smash-and-grab project of late capitalism. Would we be inspired more by institutional sales than by any actual intellectual utility?

A third concern had to do with simple herd behavior. We know that faddishness is a powerful, and sometimes unhelpful, part of academic life. Those who study finance know that the same is true in the worlds of investment and banking. Might we be walking into the middle of a similar process in publishing? Is it simply easier, more popular, and perhaps more profitable to follow the herd and generate the same types of publications that everyone else is generating for fear that if this does not happen, a publisher might well miss a particularly profitable trend? Publishing is not the most remunerative business. Such opportunities may not be wise to miss. Would we simply be following the herd with our own project?

A fourth concern has to do with the competitive, often imperialistic nature of our own field. Journals, book series, organized sections, prestigious press volumes, hiring lines, conference themes, and leadership positions are all contested. They signal not only the value of some insight or the intellectual prowess of some individual, but are also part of a broader competition to spread certain kinds of knowledge, certain types of methods, and certain categories of questions, most often at the expense of others. The creation of such a large project may well be an attempt to do something similar, or in any event it might provide a particularly juicy prize waiting to be conquered. Would we simply be adding to the bounty available to savvy academic operators?

A fifth concern might well have been driven by organizational success. The ISA has been a particularly successful academic organization. From its early, and sometimes quite tenuous beginnings, the ISA has grown into an organization with thousands of members and a large budget to match. Careful shepherding of our resources has left the organization comparatively wealthy. But the point of these resources is to serve the membership, and that has never been forgotten. The ISA had considered various publication projects to add to its services, but Blackwell had suggested a literature review project and that seemed to fit well. In 2005 our existing journals included quarterlies that provided peer-reviewed academic research, contemporary literature review essays, and individual book reviews, as well as material on policy, teaching, and retrospectives of the field. There was no outlet for longer-term review or consolidation of the literature. Would this be of real value, or would we simply be filling holes in our offerings without necessarily knowing if such a project would be of real use?

A final concern had to do with information overload. Not long before being approached about editing the project, a graduate student had walked into my office with a “new” research idea that I vaguely recalled reading a great deal about in the 1970s. He was terribly embarrassed by the set of author names and rough citations I was able to offer. So was I. This was a bright student who had considered a good deal of literature in several fields before coming to see me. What should have been assigned in his seminar readings so that this would not have happened? What recent works should have been left off our syllabi to make room? The literature in our field had proliferated. There is too much for one person to review. There is more fragmentation and specialization. Paradoxically, graduate programs have been forced to push students through more quickly, and so they read less and are urged toward immediate specialization and ‘professionalization’. Early foundation material, not to mention some of the major (if now largely abandoned) offshoots of that literature, are no longer read or cited. Should we be happy that our silos have become deeper, and narrower? Our teaching and our research require us to have a sense not only of where we are intellectually, but also of where we have been—what issues, methods, and avenues of inquiry have been considered previously. Everyone seems to recognize that innovation comes at the intersections of fields, but we continue to stress quite the opposite form of scholarship. Transdisciplinary journals are not highly ranked, and such articles do not always generate significant citations. Good work of this sort often ends up in edited volumes that are not well regarded by unidisciplinary department executives or merit systems. Where are the resources available to overcome these sorts of problems, if not from our professional associations? Would this project reinforce the wrong trends, or would we be able to turn it into something of real intellectual value in the current scholarly environment?

Behind all of this lurked a large an unfortunate practical concern. Evaluation and quantification were all the rage in the years leading up to this endeavor. In that sense, large reference projects are enigmas. Our data show that the material we create is often consulted, yet it is rarely cited. The writing of our 10,000 word literature review essays required ingenuity, focus, judgement, and clarity. All were to be blind peer reviewed, but we had to fight to make sure they were ‘counted’ in measures of merit, tenure, or promotion. I wrote dozens of letters, mostly for review or tenure files of our more junior contributors. I believe the essays are of value. On an institutional level, however, the usual academic hierarchy of publication types held sway. These essays would not count for as much as they should come time for evaluation. Could we convince scholars to undertake them? (It was just as difficult, sometimes more so, to assure that those who stepped into editorial roles were granted sufficient credit.) At the level of individual members, nobody appeared excited about the project, but people seemed to take it as a compliment when asked to contribute, and others seemed genuinely insulted when they were not. I watched the conference booths of our publishers, and it was our table of contents with its list of authors that generated the most intense interest. What makes sense of this? Armed with enough fears to feed an army of nightmares, but hopelessly hooked on the challenges of such a large-scale and long-term project, I decided to move forward.

Preliminary consideration of the project was authorized in the ISA Governing Council meeting of 2005. I was asked to serve as editor well before the 2006 conference at which the ISA Governing Council would make a final decision. I had time to review a variety of models for such projects and proposed the 10,000-word literature review format that would allow for serious consideration of a variety of topics. I had seen a variation of this model used in the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, published by UNESCO, though they made it remarkably difficult to provide full citations and treat the literature itself as the focus of the project. The ISA contacted multiple publishers, and Blackwell’s level of interest and promised support was superior. Blackwell wanted to generate a traditional printed collection and build an online project that would allow us to update individual articles, add new topics, and sponsor everything from video interviews and message boards to real-time discussions.

The project was formally adopted at the ISA Governing Council meeting in 2006. By then, many of the key criticisms had been discussed. As always, unbiased treatment, inclusiveness, high standards, and transparency offered responses to most concerns. Two practical issues remained problematic. First, the ISA was to incur no financial risk. As such, Blackwell was to own the project, and we would share revenue. Under the terms of ownership, any losses would be borne by the publisher. Blackwell also provided a healthy grant to support initial staff and budgetary needs. The second criticism concerned the possible bias and infighting that a publication project like this might engender. The question of which scholars would get to define key terms or processes arose. Would this do more to tear us apart than bring us together? I argued that the ISA had (at that time) 23 sections, and each would be asked to provide a set of proposed topics. The number of topics was not to be set on the basis of section size, as is the norm with regard to conference panels. The only criteria would be whether the topics might find viable authors. Furthermore, overlap was welcome, so long as essays would focus on different substantive or methodological elements of an issue area and adopt variations in the title. We were not going to be consumed by the question of which one scholar with which one perspective would get to review enduring topics like ‘the reasons for war’. Blackwell had budgeted four-million words for the hardback version. I could not imagine running out of space. Even if we did, the online version would allow unlimited content.

I believe that at least part of the reason people were reassured had to do with my own reputation. As a very young scholar I had seated myself at a crowded table in a busy hotel bar at some long-ago ISA conference. Sociologist Chris Chase-Dunn was talking about the internecine methodological wars that were always being waged. He suggested that we could sit around and insult one another’s intellectual grandparents, or we could read one another’s stuff and see what we might learn instead. Chase-Dunn hardly lacked for strong personal positions. Fools were not always suffered lightly. But his demeanor seemed to invite some of the most diverse and interesting people to engage in civil and fascinating discussions over complex issues. I have tried, if not always successfully, to take his message to heart.

The ISA Governing Council gave its go-ahead, and I spent the rest of the 2006 conference speaking at section meetings and soliciting input from colleagues. I was especially interested in newly minted PhDs. Every dissertation includes a literature review chapter, and that is the first thing that must be jettisoned when converting the work into a book manuscript. I wanted those chapters.

There were other issues that I knew I would have to deal with. The project was so vast that it might simply not be possible to complete. Similar projects sponsored by major associations have failed. The idea of writing a set of fixed ‘reviews’ in a field as fluid as ours might create more of an intellectual mausoleum than a useful intellectual tool. The fear was that we might establish a canon—an Encyclozombium—that constricts instead of broadens our vision. These were real fears that I kept in mind when making decisions of various sorts.

To keep the project representative of the Association, we organized it around our 23 substantive sections. I asked each section to identify an editor to help organize a set of topics, solicit authors, find reviewers, and make decisions about necessary revisions. I was pleased by the range of organizing principles adopted by different sections. The project had to have a structure, but I did not want that structure to get in the way of generating interesting essays. If a relatively small section in a new corner of the field wanted to aim for 5,000-word essays instead of 10,000, I remained open. We also wanted to make sure that the topical coverage was as well-balanced and complete as we could manage. The topics lists themselves were reviewed by our editorial board, which consisted of 31 past ISA presidents. When additional topics were thought necessary, board members often suggested authors and I connected them with the section editors. Not every area was covered by our established sections, and perhaps the most important was that of ‘theory’. I took on the role of section editor for theory essays, and asked a subset of the editorial board to help me identify topics and authors. (I was very pleased when an official ‘theory’ section was finally proposed.) I thought it made sense to expand our coverage by crossing the boundaries of various fields and reviewing some interesting scholarship that ISA did not traditionally include. I approached Colin Flint, then on the faculty of Geography at the University of Illinois, and asked if he would be willing to organize a series of essays on political geography. The project benefited greatly by his positive response. (A formal section devoted to political geography and demography subsequently developed.) I hoped that other related topics, like political anthropology, or elements of focused area studies, might eventually be added.

The promise of the online version offered to keep the project versatile. We hoped that real-time discussion would make it easier for people to address and offer constructive criticism or provide arguments to discount different perspectives. Projects like this need not calcify into a dead hand.

Some issues emerged that were wholly unexpected. One of the largest and oddest concerns that had to be solved was the name of the project. The ISA Governing Council made it clear that we could name it anything we wanted as long as the word ‘encyclopedia’ was not part of the title. Blackwell made it clear that we could name it anything we wanted as long as the word ‘encyclopedia’ appeared as part of the title. I worked, albeit slowly, with Blackwell’s Nick Bellorini on this issue. He told me that several associations had named projects of this sort differently for internal and external purposes. We called the overall project The ISA Compendium Project and identified a hardcover Encyclopedia of International Studies, an expandable e-version titled ISA Online, and a book series organized around sections, using ‘Guide to’ in the title.

Nobody could have predicted the high level of support that the project received from our colleagues. Sections coalesced around editorial teams, while a few others allowed me to help them find able editors. The editorial board reviewed topics, suggested authors, and helped navigate theory offerings. ISA Headquarters provided every form of support. Blackwell (later purchased to become Wiley-Blackwell) remained faithful to the vision we had constructed. By the time the hardback was published in 2010, we had done the equivalent of (a) identifying a given topic, (b) approving it, (c) finding an author, (d) writing a manuscript, (e) reviewing that manuscript, (f) requesting revisions, (g) receiving a revised version, and (h) preparing it for final publication—and we did that every 3 and one half days for 4 solid years. The final project contained 404 review essays in 12 volumes that ran 8,029 pages.

The logic of the online system—a newer idea then than now—was that we would offer a consistent stream of new essays and updates, along with bells and whistles like interviews and chats. The technology was not quite up to the task. Our submission system had been cobbled together and patched in multiple ways. The online product was designed in the midst of major improvements in the digital world. It appeared stale nearly as soon as it became available. There were major issues with the search apparatus. Wiley-Blackwell had hoped to generate a series of reference projects and provide a single search mechanism for all of them. This required a unified set of keywords and stretched the search machinery, given that the different fields had offered projects with very different architectures and adopted terms that were often incompatible. It took more time and effort than it should have to convince the business agents that having a large project of this sort behind a paywall was one thing, but keeping the table of contents sequestered as well was a major error.

The Association was also challenged by the call to continue to produce. Most section editors wanted to step down after publication, and new ones were hard to find. I spent 6 years as General Editor, and in 2012 I asked Renee Marlin-Bennett to join me as coeditor. Renee had done an excellent job as a section editor, taking over when previous editors had to withdraw. She showed continued interest in the broader venture and had a very insightful sense of what we might do with the online project. Together, we generated a good number of additional essays from among those still in the pipeline, but productivity was going to be difficult to sustain. After 1 year I stepped down as coeditor, though I remained active as chair of the Editorial Advisory Board. It was clear that the viability of the project was going to rest upon the creation of an improved online system, which we had been promised. But as successive due dates for various upgrades passed, promises became pro forma, and the proposed enhancements being offered by the publisher seemed to become less specific, the Association began to push to purchase the project. That process was artfully guided by our new executive director, Mark Boyer, and the purchase was approved at the ISA Governing Council meeting of 2015. Essays created by members of the Association would be freely accessed by the membership, while sales to institutions could continue. The Association began to search for a new home for the project after that. The winning proposal came from our new journals publisher, Oxford University Press. The Compendium Project was to join a stable of innovative, sophisticated, and successful online offerings. It was reborn as the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies in 2017.

As the project matures, especially as part of the Oxford collection, some challenges were predicted and others were not. We knew we would have to update essays, and Renee and I worked on a system of judging when to begin asking authors to update essays, to bring coauthors on board, or to allow others to step into single-authored essays. My hope was that a legacy collection would be maintained. The whole point of the project was to rescue our intellectual work from oblivion. Reviews should be kept fresh, but old reviews might still have value. This is especially the case since online storage is not costly. Clearly the project needs to be pruned on occasion, but dated review essays might stand in for a time until new authors can be acquired. Oxford’s solution, optimal in my view, is to keep historical essays even after they are replaced, though to privilege the newer work in searches. So long as oversight is ongoing, this should work well. We also face the question of how to link Oxford’s Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Wiley-Blackwell’s idea of a single index proved problematic, but there are other ways to bring attention to corollary works (like the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics), as well as those in other fields. Oxford is allowing searches across all ORE projects either selectively or in total. This design should provide the flexibility necessary for broad searches without sacrificing field-specific terms. Finally, there is a question of how we measure use and utility. If citations are not going to provide a good measure, then rankings (among online review projects) or counts (of hits, reads, downloads, or related material) might provide a solid basis for arguing that the efforts of our authors should ‘count’. These are challenges that our third lead editor, Nukhet Sandal, is certain to grapple with. Her dedication will likely provide success in these and other areas of concern.

With the new publisher, format, and online system, we retained the original opening essay with the other elements of the original project, though they are not easy to find. In my essay I identified those who made all of this possible. It would be wrong, and unethical, if their efforts were ignored. Bill Thompson chaired our original Editorial Advisory Board. I cannot imagine a wiser or more capable colleague, or anyone I’d rather have watching my back. Tom Volgy lent his prodigious energy and talents to the creation and management of this project. The ISA used some of its grant from Blackwell to support Andrea Gerlak as managing editor. Her dedication, attention to detail, and professional ethos are responsible for much of what is worthwhile here. The members of the original Editorial Advisory Board, 31 former ISA presidents (several of them already retired), responded to my queries, reviewed lists of topics, suggested possible authors, reviewed essays, and earned special thanks.

Everyone who finds some of these essays useful owes a particular debt to the section editors who served through the publication of the hardback collection, and the ‘go live’ deadline of the online system. Each had a chance to write their own introduction in the original version, but these narratives do not provide sufficient evidence of their hard work. This project, and our association, owes special thanks to these colleagues, who are listed in the alphabetical order of their sections: Carolyn Shaw, Sai Felicia Krishna-Hensel, Paul Sharp and Donna Lee, Dan Green, MJ Peterson, Pat James, Nukhet Sandal and Gallya Lahav, Brooke Ackerly and Laura Sjoberg, Steve Redd, Salvatore Babones, Chandra Sriram and Kurt Mills, Stephen Marrin and Larry Lamana, Nanette Levinson, Barron Boyd, Amy Eckert, Chip Carey and Bob Beck, Ken Stiles and Melissa Labonte, Renee Marlin-Bennett, Alex Macleod, Theo Farrell, Carolyn Stephenson, Colin Flint, Andrei Korobkov, Paul Diehl and Jim Morrow, Rose Shinko (who helped find authors and reviewers for IR theory essays with assistance from members of the ISA’s Northeast region), Meredith Reid Sarkees, and Vicki Golich. A significant debt is also owed to approximately 600 reviewers, and especially the ‘emergency’ review corps (Candace Archer, Anthony Lang, James Larry Taulbee, and Matthew Weinert) who rushed through dozens of penultimate drafts as the final due date approached.

I also owe personal thanks. In the hardback version I include a list of inspirational teachers and colleagues, and my ever-supportive family. Some things never change, nor should they.